Ben Running has been influencing how products are built for over a decade. Before his most recent role as the head of Jet.com’s Innovation Lab, he was a design director at Buzzfeed. He’s considered by many to a guiding light and resource to help brands understand how they innovate to break free of their competition. I sat down with Ben to chat more about just that. In our interview below, we discuss how brands can experiment and measure those investments, and what the future of innovation in the retail space looks like.
There’s a lot of new and interesting stuff out there, and not a day when I don’t hear a pitch for some new product claiming to transform the way we work, revolutionize e-commerce, or reinvent _fill in the blank_. This is super exciting and it’s easy (and fun!) to get sucked in and imagine the world-changing thing you could roll out with the next release, but generally speaking, I advocate a bit of restraint when it comes to broad deployment of new technology.
Of course it’s important to understand what’s going on out there – the landscape, players, technology and the direction of the industry, but it’s more important to understand the technology your users are regularly using and what what they’re doing with it.
Equipped with that information, you can craft a structured approach towards new tech that addresses real customer needs, aligns with business goals, stakeholder needs, etc. Give users technology that matches their current competency, but push it one step further when you identify a solution to problem where a new technology is the answer. This is a win for both the user and the business, and avoids the future creep that can alienate users and bloat products.
Cheap, fast experiments are great. With guardrails in place for budget, time, and human capital, it’s a lot easier for a business to accept some risk and put aside worries about quarterly returns on a project. Frameworks for these programs (such as The Innovator’s Hypothesis) outline budget, time, personnel, and process, and make it easy to get started.
As a career product designer who went to work on innovation projects, I always advocate for the inclusion of designers in this innovation process.
I’ve been to a number of innovation events and conferences, visited corporate innovation labs, and met with a lot of innovation professionals. I was struck how, under the mantle of innovation, enterprise corporations were eager adopt basic tenets of design thinking – things that have seemed second nature to designers for a long time.
The reason that designers are, by nature, innovators, is that design, like innovation, is about mitigating risk through rapid iteration around an idea. Designers and innovators both identify a problem, research and propose a solution, then use lightweight prototypes to validate (or disprove) assumptions about the validity of the solution. Designers tend to be empathetic to user pains, use tools like journey maps to identify needs and opportunities, and organize co-creation exercises to surface ideas with diverse points of view. Paired with strategic business goals, you can see great results.
It’s good to claim the innovation mantle by showcasing your interest in new tech. As we previously discussed, your user-facing properties may not be the ideal use of bleeding edge tech, but find some cool ways to show that you’re thinking about tomorrow. Show off your experiments and labs projects online or at events, make betas available to those who opt-in, and heavily promote your efforts internally. Innovation concepts can ignite imagination and promote the concept of general innovation in the culture.
Individual innovation experiments won’t be expected to turn a profit, but still need their own KPIs. I typically seek to answer the following about each experiment:
- What does success or failure look like, and can you concisely summarize the goal of the project?
- Do we need to be doing this at all, or is there an existing solution that can be repurposed for a similar result?
- Does this improve the customer experience and solve real problems for our users?
- Do we clearly understand the business goals we’re trying to affect?
- Is the solution scalable?
It helps to get input from colleagues when defining success and identifying possible existing solutions. Other people have likely tackled similar issues, and knowledge tends to get siloed inside big orgs. Involve user researchers and UX designers to determine how your experiment solves user problems. User journey mapping is a great tool for identifying pain points and opportunities.
Business goals are often easiest to define – drive conversion, improve marketing ROI, lower costs, but often carry interdependencies.
Scaling is the million dollar question (billion dollar question in one org I talked to recently – they had to be sure innovations would scale globally). It’s not uncommon for innovation projects to check all the boxes except financial. I worked on a connected packaging prototype that really made sense to the business and the user, but the cost at scale was prohibitive. We walked away with great learnings, and can still implement the solution when prices drop.
Definitely. I don’t see graphical interfaces going anywhere any time soon – we’ve been communicating through marks on surfaces for most of human history, but the role of voice interaction is becoming increasingly important every day.
Every retailer should welcome the opportunity for low friction voice interactions, the ability to shop or retrieve any other information by simply speaking your mind. Good NLU, with the ability to understand intent and context, removes a layer of effort and gets the shopper to the items they want. It can help eliminate tedious browsing, filtering, sorting, and the decision paralysis shoppers face when presented with a page of confusing similar-but-different results.
Voice also offers integrations that haven’t been possible before, as fully-capable computing becomes available in new realms (ambient home devices, automotive, wearables). Voice facilitates necessary interactions in an ancillary capacity, leaving us fully (or mostly, at least) engaged in our primary task.
Voice interactions also suggest the potential for rich commerce and interactive experiences without staring at a screen all day, something i’m personally looking forward to. It also stands to revolutionize digital accessibility for the visually and motor imparied, something every organization struggles with.
I see some parallels with smartphone touch gestures. The first time I saw a young kid, a 1 year old who couldn’t even speak yet, grasp and fluidly execute the swipe gesture on a phone – and then try and fail to reproduce it on a non-interactive physical picture frame – i thought it was an aberration. It’s not, though. These gestures are now ingrained into our abilities.
I see a similar trend with voice interactions. Kids accustomed to interacting with ambient smart speakers and voice assistance, using on them exclusively for certain tasks older generations would use a visual interface for (weather, calendar, messaging, entertainment), and in fact expecting voice interactions in certain situations, leading to disappointment when there’s no reply.
These interactions will become internalized the same way gestural touch screen interactions have become, making voice communication the de facto mode for many tasks for a long time.
One more note – design for voice is creating interesting new challenges and opportunities for businesses and designers. What’s an appropriate task for voice? How do we design for it (and re-define the design role)? How compatible is it with technology like browse, text search, product taxonomy, CMS, and recommendation engines that we’ve already put a huge amount of effort into?
I advise brands to worry less about the emerging technology, and more about the service design and brand they’re putting forward in the world. The barrier to creating great product is continually shrinking. Even a couple of years ago, to even contemplate offering voice search, you’d need to create your own powerful technology stack with NLP, neural networks, a hosting solution capable of training complex models, and a thousand other things that are way over my head.
Today you can basically plug into a platform like Voysis and you’re up and running in no time. This is extremely powerful and it’s increasingly true for many technologies. Last year I sat with a pair of extremely talented interns at Jet.com and watched them implement an augmented reality solution in under an hour, thanks to Apple’s ARKit. This can lead to a sort of commoditization among vendors, where every party is able to offer the same product for the same price, through similar high tech apps, with similar voice search, similar AR previews, similar two-day free shipping, and similar free returns.
The reasons a user will actively seek out one vendor over another will be the strength and coherency of that vendor’s service, and the values reflected in the brand.
Customer-centric service design is conceived of holistically, is responsive to the customer, context, stakeholders inside the business, and evolves with the needs of the customer. It’s consistent and smart across touchpoints, implements new tech in context, and delivers a satisfactory and confident resolution.
Brands need to understand the “why” behind their business, then translate that into operating principles, and then share those values with users. When faced with two otherwise-identical choices, users will opt for the business whose values they identify with, the business they feel understands them.